VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (Reuters) - Senior U.S. defense officials voiced concern about North Korea's nuclear ambitions on Friday as they toured American missile defense sites a day after watching the military test-fire its second intercontinental ballistic missile in a week.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work and Admiral Cecil Haney, combat commander of U.S. nuclear forces, said they were confident American missile defenses could counter the nuclear threat from Pyongyang despite a mixed record of success in testing.
"I think when you look at what it’s designed for, and that’s a North Korean type problem, I think (I have) a very high confidence that we would have the capability," Haney said after visiting a nondescript metal building where workers assemble the ground-based interceptor at the heart of the defense system.
Their remarks were a second day of messaging North Korea about its nuclear ambitions. Work said the test-firing of the unarmed Minuteman III missile on Thursday night was aimed at demonstrating the reliability of U.S. nuclear arms to potential nuclear rivals like Russia and North Korea.
The tour of missile defense facilities was another signal to Pyongyang, which recently detonated an underground nuclear device and tested a rocket in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
"North Korea as a whole (is) very, very problematic in terms of their thirst to have a nuclear capability," Haney told reporters, citing Pyongyang's indifference to Security Council resolutions and its provocative attacks on South Korea.
The United States currently has 30 ground-based interceptor missiles to target and destroy nuclear ballistic missiles while they are still in space. Four of the interceptors are at Vandenberg and the rest at Fort Greely, Alaska.
The U.S. military is building another 14 interceptors at a cost of nearly $1 billion to be installed at Fort Greely by the end of 2017, fulfilling a pledge by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2013 after Pyongyang threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States.
The deputy secretary said on Friday the ICBM test-shot late on Thursday was viewed as a success because of its proximity to the target near Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. The military does not generally disclose how close the missile lands to its target.
Work said it was the eighth consecutive successful test of a Minuteman III and the 27th consecutive successful missile test in the nuclear force, including air-launched cruise missiles and submarine-launched missiles.
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Tom Hogue